Wednesday, April 27, 2016

What you on

The distinctive smell of the most popular recreational drug (after alcohol) is a common scent on the bus, some routes more so than others. Some folks don't even try to hide it, the nostril-flaring aroma boards the bus before they do, a reeky red flag to give away what they were doing while waiting. There's no shame in their game, and it's not a problem on the bus because it didn't happen on the bus. And really, there's rarely a behavioral problem since most of the time everyone stays mellow and loose, a welcome alternative to the derangement that flakka unleashed last year.

The scent is hard to hide, and when it occasionally wafts up to the driver's area, I'm compelled to see what's going on behind me. If there's no smoke, there's no fire and we're all good. Usually I get a whiff of something due to my habit of always having my window open, regardless of temperature. So we could be passing a particular hang out spot, or a partaker could be in the car that just pulled up next to us at a red light. Once we get moving again, the odor is gone.

Other times the smell is not from smoke, but simple exposure to whatever especially strong strain is being rolled that day. A cursory walk-through of the bus at the end of the day reveals the evidence: the unused tobacco contents of a cigarillo in a small pile beneath a seat.

If anything seriously illegal is going on, other passengers are generally good about pointing it out. Then there's the time an older man came up to me and confessed he found a joint on the floor and went to pick it up; it turned out to be a french fry.

The flip side of all this piques my curiosity the most. As bus operators controlling heavy equipment and transporting passengers, we're obviously in a safety-sensitive position. Naturally, the County routinely conducts random drug and alcohol testing on its employees. A minuscule percentage of operators may fail the test, but the vast majority value our jobs too much to abuse any substances, so we're among the cleanest people on the bus. Still, some passengers assume we're doing something we shouldn't. This tends to happen at the end of a long shift, when the stress of the day helps us achieve a strung out, bedraggled, bloodshot appearance.

One day on the 40, a youth looked at me knowingly and promised he wouldn't tell, holding his finger to his lips. Most recently on the 50, another young man, a self-confessed fan of the herb nearing the end of a work-release program, studied my visage for a second before we pulled out for my last trip. With a winning grin he delivered the line of the day: "Can I have some of what you on?"

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

In with the new

It was an early afternoon on the 50. We'd just pulled in to the NETC about 10 minutes down, so I was looking to do a stop & drop and book it back on the road asap. When we get down that much, we're picking up passengers waiting for the next bus, so there was a good number of folks waiting to board. The whole transition went smooth, I closed the doors and checked to make sure the coast was clear to pull out. Then I saw her. A runner. Rather, a woman trying her best to run toward the bus. A plump middle-aged woman with freshly styled short blond hair, she was putting her best foot forward. She was within range, her effort was heroic, so we held the bus for her.

Gasping for air as she boarded, I suggested she catch her breath as she confirmed she had a pass. We pulled out before the rest of Pompano descended upon us. There must not have been any seats available, because she stayed up front supporting herself against the luggage shelf.

"Whew! I quit smoking 8 weeks ago after smoking 43 years, started when I was 8 or 9. I promised my mom on her deathbed that I'd quit."
   You're a lucky woman to have a mom looking out for you like that at the end.
"Yeah, she was a smart one. She also said I should quit my husband, so I did that too."
   Sometimes it's just time to move on.
"Out with the old, in with the new!"

Monday, April 25, 2016


On my Saturday morning 72 piece, I usually had no problem keeping it on time. Even with 15 minute headways I never got caught by my follower, and you know a few poorly-timed red lights and a draw bridge can eat up that time quickly. The day before Valentine's something was going on, because traffic got heavy earlier than usual. Last minute gifts for a loved one? Enjoying the weather? Weekend events? Most likely the holiday played an influential role in Oakland Park Blvd being extremely crowded all the way from Sawgrass Mills to the Galt Mile. Ridership was decent, if someone wanted a seat there was always one available - a far cry from weekday afternoons when the sardine-can effect is in full swing. Regular westbound riders at that time are familiar with the "Sawgrass Shuffle". On top of the external obstacles, the old workhorse of the fleet, bus 601, was moving a bit more sluggish than usual.

My second eastbound trip around lunch time was the most trying. At University Drive I was already down 4 minutes, and that's the quietest stretch of the trip. When we departed 441 we were down 9 minutes, and we had yet to hit the choke points at I-95/Powerline or US 1.

Just west of the I-95 overpass we caught up to a young man in running gear, jogging at a brisk pace on the southside sidewalk. He was running the same direction we were crawling, outpacing the bus.

By the time we crossed the Powerline Road lights we were down 12 minutes, and that 15 minute headway was evaporating like a puddle at noon time. Occasionally glancing in the mirror for any sign of my follower, I knew he must be nearly empty since at this point I was picking up his people. Pretty sure there were no more empty seats now, but it's hard to see what's available 50 feet behind you in an artic.

Several minutes later we crossed Andrews Ave and the runner was still outpacing us. This was getting embarrassing. He was on course to beat us to the end of the line. Finally, around NE 4th Ave, he hit the brakes and resumed a walking speed. I have to applaud him on his stamina for over a mile. Well done, sir.

Shortly before US 1 any chance of getting back on time was a pipe dream. I was getting ready to pull into a pull-in stop to load a passenger in a wheelchair, when my follower came to the rescue and took over the picking up duties. Dispatch instructed me to turn around under the Intracoastal bridge, so I snaked it by the marinas and restaurants and reemerged onto OPB back on time.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Go ye

A couple months ago the Good Year blimp base off Dixie Highway in Pompano got a makeover. It was a common sight to see crews replacing roof panels at precarious positions from enormous manlifts. More recently they completed the work by replacing the signage. For several weeks, a few letters were missing so that the building read GOO YE. I couldn't help but take it to heart as a reminder to never 'tire' after a long day, and it became a sort of silent mantra that energized me for the last few trips of my shift. Now the sign is finished and the mantra is no more, though the building's occupant continues it's forward motion, buoyed by air. The nearby orbiting bodies pounding out the miles on the railroad and Dixie Highway complete their terrestrial circuits. Some bodies are fixed in their paths, still others break routine and venture into new avenues.

The April pick starts today, so expect to see new faces at the wheel as drivers shift positions. I always make a point of picking the 50 at least one day a week if available, and my good fortune continues for the next couple months since I'll be over there every Monday afternoon. Come on, let's go...

P.S. You'll also find me on the 19 Saturdays, the 34 several days a week and the 95 Express Route 109. Oh yeah, and a bonus tripper on the 10 once a week. So I'll be disappearing uptown for awhile but still transporting my peeps at Central Terminal.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

How great thou art

For the past few weeks the yellow tabs have been in bloom all over South Florida, spinning straw into gold. Most of us natives are accustomed to northern transplants complaining to us how there are no seasons here. Sure, our most pronounced seasons are the wet and the dry cycles, whereas more northern latitudes have showy displays of fall foliage and snowfall. Yet somehow our flora knows it's springtime and decides to put on an outrageous explosion of golden color. My current theory is that despite the sometimes violent nature of our weather, for the most part the changes are subtle and help develop an extra-sensitive awareness in those who pay attention.

This was just another day on the 50, which meant there was not much chance of getting bored. I relieved the previous driver as usual at the NETC, and as I adjusted the mirrors some passionate singing wafted up from the rear.
"How great Thou art..." came the feminine voice, squeaky and totally off-key in a Jamaican accent. I instantly recognized the voice as that of a regular rider, an older lady with a habit of singing hymns on the bus. She's always crying poor but keeps on keepin' on, routinely trudging off to the Swap Shop with a folding cart full of wares. This trip we were going the opposite direction, so hopefully she had a successful day that led her to be thankful on the way home.

As we pulled into the north end layover in Deerfield, there was heavy police activity on the back street so I advised everyone to be careful out there. Something in me hesitates to deliver my passengers into the midst of potential danger, but since we don't do door-to-door service and the police appeared to have things secure we made the best of it.

A lively older gentleman boarded, the rusty gait and deliberate movements testified to a time-worn body. His mind was well-oiled however, firing on all cylinders. He was talking at that volume which is meant for everyone, a tacit invitation to the other boarding strangers to join in conversation.
"I don't want a woman who only loves my money. I want a woman who loves me and my money, and God in heaven."
A younger man took his cue, and the two engaged in a back-and-forth about women, Jesus, and resurrection.

Down the line, Mr. Herpes Ace and Equal Hearts boarded.

It was an especially heavy ridership that day, my leader was loaded and running late on our next northbound. She called in to dispatch to report that she had to pass up three passengers in wheelchairs since she already had two aboard. I was a little concerned myself since my bus was nearing a full seated load and there were passengers using the seats in the two wheelchair areas. What I like to do to motivate people on the bus in this situation is just pull right on up to the wheelchair passenger, pop the doors, kneel the bus, unbuckle my seat belt, turn around toward the cabin and ask in bus driver voice "Do we have room for a wheelchair?" Generally whoever is in those seats will readily move, since the sooner we get everyone on board the sooner we get moving again. They're certainly not required to move, they have as much right to those seats as anyone, so I always thank them. "You guys are the best! Thank ya thank ya!" And sure enough, we were able to reconfigure ourselves and make room for everyone.

Our next southbound at Copans, line crews have closed the right lane to install utility poles. They're replacing older wooden poles with upgraded concrete models. Traffic is backing up.

At SW 2 St in Pompano the free-range yard chickens at one apartment complex are pecking around in the weedy lot. They may be skinny, but they're not dumb; I've never seen one as roadkill on Dixie Highway.

At Central Terminal boarding for our next northbound trip, a solidly built gentleman with trim mustache in BurgerFi uniform swipes his pass and looks at me a little longer than usual.
"I remember you from the 72 last year! You're the only handsome driver," he sweet-talks.
"Oh, there are many more," I reply with my usual humility.
He makes a comment about my positive attitude standing out from other drivers. This naturally follows into a conversation about positive thinking, and he has a paragon of this particular virtue waiting at home. His wife had both kidneys removed 11 years earlier and has to take 9 hours of dialysis daily, yet she maintains a positive attitude despite this inconvenient and unpleasant necessity. As he tells me more of this incredible woman, I can only shake my head in admiration and tell him flat out that he's a lucky man.

It's now our last southbound trip. Hopefully a smooth run to Central Terminal then we'll take it home to the garage. The reality of the 50 at this time of day makes that wishful thinking. As we work our way down the line, I'm getting bad reports from passengers of long waits, a regular complaint at any time, however the growing load lends credence to this. It's as if my leader has disappeared, but I haven't heard anything on the radio about it going out of service so I can only apologize for the inconvenience and keep it moving.

At Sample we pick up another regular, a middle-aged man who's counting down the days till his driver's license gets reinstated after a DUI.
"Just a few more days and you'll never see me again," he promises.
I congratulate him and wish him well.

Halfway through the trip and the bus is still packed, including a wheelchair passenger. Some get off only to be immediately replaced. Normally we'd get some elbow room after servicing the NETC, but the double-load theme continues and it's not till we get way down to Five Points that we get some breathing space. We pull into D Aisle at Central, everyone exits to make their connections, I switch the head sign to NOT IN SERVICE, flick the cabin lights off, and we roll out back to the barn, just me and a bus full of the ghosts of the day.

Sunday, April 10, 2016


A couple months ago I was doing my Saturday morning run on the 72. It's a nice piece, I don't go into service until after 8 so I've missed most of the morning madness and can enjoy the trips at a realistic pace. Completely opposite from the chaotic morning and afternoon runs on weekdays. That said, it's still early enough that you can see who is a morning person and who isn't, who may have had a long night, and who's just getting started.

At one stop, an especially chipper young man in his 20s boarded, clearly a morning person.
"How's it goin'?" I greeted him.
"I'm going to make the doughnuts!" he exclaimed with a toothy smile.
He wasn't wearing any obvious logos to indicate he was actually going to make doughnuts, so I thought to myself this must be some new slang. Yes, I am a child of the 80s so I fondly remember Fred the Baker, but how in the world could this young guy know about that?

Saturday, April 9, 2016

STD (Stay True Dixie)

Welcome one and all to the 50 bus. Sorry there's no red carpet, but we have no need for such formalities. When you're here, you're family. So expect a smile and a kind word, but please clean up after yourself. Just kidding, we have a maintenance crew to handle that.

"I'm back again - just like herpes" he greets me with melancholic monotone, in plain polo and khakis. We don't always have time to exchange names, so against any sense of decency I call him Mr. Herpes. I used to pick him up every Sunday morning on the 50 but this pick I shifted to afternoons and don't see him so regularly. Still, like he says, he pops up occasionally like the gift that keeps on giving.

Most of us have been in his shoes: a promising youth of excitement and opportunity that eventually settles into resigned monotony. His training ground was off the ground in the world of aviation, an unlimited horizon spread before him. Haven't we all soared at one time, high on life and the future, confident in our ability to go in any direction we chose, like a bird in flight. We can only defy the laws of nature for so long. Gravity has a way of bringing us back to earth, weighing us down under our accumulated experience. Maybe we clip our own wings, tiring at the relentless assaults we face. This is all the more reason to defy the cages and preen our plumage. Even little birds can be nursed back to Life.

It is a periodic passage of life that we traverse the valleys of ennui and dejection. When you've had your fill of that place, get stubborn, get rebellious and rise again. Don't doubt the value of your presence. You, in your living humanity, are the most valuable resource on this planet. That means you, Mr. Homeless, Ms. Student, Miss Fast Food, Old, Young, Powerless, Forgotten, Nameless, Speechless, Hopeless, Failure, Has-Been, etc.

Mr. Herpes, despite his sad-sack demeanor, still has the spark within and hasn't fully given up.
"Don't worry, I'll be back" he promises.
He now has a new nickname: Ace.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

A penny for your thought

The whole episode is kind of a blur to me now, though even at the time I could sense the significance of it. There weren't any lightning bolts or tremors, just a cool breeze on a sunny day. Even so, there's no denying that I got schooled that day. I didn't take notes, but certain parts are still vivid in my memory so that will have to suffice.

It was a Sunday morning on the 60. It was most likely our first northbound trip, which has zero wiggle room timewise and pretty much requires the bus to be constantly moving. We were approaching Commercial Blvd, preparing to stop for some exiting passengers. One of them was an elderly woman who spoke in stunted English that was occasionally comprehensible. A sweet lady, but seemingly confused and flustered. I'll usually ratchet up my patience in these situations to ease the customer's experience on our buses and assist in any way I can.

While others were exiting, she lingered to make sure this was her stop. I assured her it was, glancing at the traffic light to determine if we had time to make it through before it went red. It was looking good, she was preparing to exit - then she stopped. She squatted and bent down to the floor and came up with a solitary penny. Not sure if it was hers or an errant coin, but the time it took for her to retrieve it was enough for the light to go red and delay us a few more minutes on top of the several we were already down. Then I did something out of character, but hardly offensive. I raised my arm to the light and uttered a sigh about missing the green. By now I'm resigned to the whims of our signal system and rarely get annoyed by them, even when they're clearly malfunctioning. For some reason on this morning the timing was such that I was more sensitive to the lost opportunity than the needs of the poor woman navigating her way around town.

"It's alright, bus driver" I heard a calm voice behind me pipe up.
Apparently my moment of weakness did not go unnoticed. A young man standing by the luggage shelf saw the whole scene. His measured tone is still with me, no judgment in it, just acceptance of the situation. He went on to elucidate about time and preparation, verging into philosophy. The precise words escape me now, but the lesson was learned, the reminder duly noted.

The County instructs us operators to never sacrifice safety for schedule, and I'd like to think that every day the goal of safety becomes more sacred to me. On the same level - of equal priority - may I strive to never sacrifice service for schedule.

So here's to the old, the young, and the lowest coin of the realm - the smallest and most undervalued of our society. Truth, wisdom, and Life give power to the powerless.